This article appeared in Make: Vol. 40.

This article appeared in Make: Vol. 40.

“It’s like a gym where you get a membership to use the equipment.” That was the basic idea for TechShop, as explained to me by founder Jim Newton at our first Maker Faire in April of 2006. He asked me for a table so he could hang his sign, deliver his pitch, and see if people were interested. The fact that he showed up in a vintage military transport vehicle had some bearing on my decision to say yes. The interest proved strong enough for Jim to get backers and open the first TechShop in an industrial park in Menlo Park, California, in October 2006.

Almost from inception, TechShop was a dream — not only Jim’s but one shared by its members — to have unlimited access to the tools of a machine shop, plus new tools for digital fabrication such as laser cutters and 3D printers, for a modest monthly fee.

What do people really do at TechShop? There are a group of makers who show up with a pretty clear idea of what they want to do. They have a project to work on. Often it has some practical or commercial application, and they lack a place where they could develop their idea into something real. Others show up and want to belong but don’t have a project or purpose. They want to learn how to use the tools, and maybe that will lead them somewhere. David Lang was one of those people, and he wrote about his experience in the book Zero to Maker.

Some have tried to implement what TechShop has done. In Shenzhen, China, I came across TechSpace. Others, while similar to TechShop, are different in that they’re locally owned and operated, such as Maker Works in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Gui Cavalcanti, who started a similar shared workspace in 2004, learned some key lessons from its failure and started thinking of a new model. This became Artisan’s Asylum in Somerville, Massachusetts, which now occupies a 24,000-square-foot space that was originally an envelope factory. He had a budget of $40,000 to open the space and outfit it. Most of the tools were used, either donated by members or acquired for the cost of removing them from a former worksite. Artisan’s Asylum is most successful at building a community among its members, some of whom rent their own workspace. It has become not just a place to do your own work but a kind of “collaborative commons,” to use the phrase from Jeremy Rifkin’s book, The Zero Marginal Cost Society.

There are also quite a number of hackerspaces, which tend to be like clubs, almost always run by volunteers. Some are members-only and others are open to the public for free, like Noisebridge in San Francisco. Some hackerspaces are rather like an eccentric’s garage full of scavenged treasure and forever awaiting someone to whip it into shape. A hackerspace is as much a meeting place as a workplace.

Artisan’s Asylum represents what I might call a middle tier between large-scale TechShops and small-scale hackerspaces, a trend toward the professionalization of makerspaces. That is, they must be able to perform a core set of services to support membership growth. A makerspace needs to greet new members and provide basic safety training as well as offer workshops for members who arrive without project ideas.

Indeed, a gym is a good analogy to understand makerspaces. Today’s health clubs started out years ago as bodybuilding gyms. They were designed to meet the needs of a narrow, largely male membership. They weren’t particularly friendly to newcomers or casual users. Yet something changed in our culture around physical fitness, and health clubs became more open and accommodating, to broaden membership by welcoming women as well as men, and the serious as well as the casual member. This is what we’re seeing as makerspaces transition from volunteer efforts serving a small group of members.

Neil Gershenfeld designed and built Fab Labs, the first of which was opened in Boston in 2004. Gershenfeld’s Center for Bits and Atoms might be considered the R&D lab for digital fabrication, with state-of-the-art tools organized in service of an inevitable vision of our technological future. While there are a variety of settings, from science museums to community colleges, Fab Labs are funded and managed in a top-down fashion that’s consistent with their academic origins. Independently, a growing number of makerspaces are getting established at universities, such as Yale, Georgia Tech, Case Western Reserve, and SMU. These spaces are designed for students and their projects.

It doesn’t much matter what you call them — TechShops, makerspaces, hackerspaces, or Fab Labs. Makers are doing cool stuff, and having access to tools, community, and mentors really does matter. We need more local places for makers to work out new ideas.